GeekDad Retro Gaming: Cyberpunk by R. Talsorian Games, Inc.

Cyberpunk RPG

I’ve been digging around in some of my boxes and, once again, I’ve come upon something I completely forgot about — a late 80s RPG titled Cyberpunk from R. Talsorian Games, Inc. I remember seeing this game advertised in Dragon magazine at some point, but by that point I already owned it. I had found William Gibson’s Neuromancer novel just after it was released, and I was hooked. At that point, if the word cyberpunk was attached, my ears perked up.

The problem I had with a LOT of the games I purchased back in the day was a lack of interested players. I had friends who loved to play D&D and Star Trek RPG, but that was about it. Top Secret, Starfleet Battles, Paranoia, and a few others… these boxes basically gathered dust because even though I was willing to referee the game, most of my friends just didn’t share an interest in a lot of these game themes. So it was with Cyberpunk, but at the time I was loving all the cyberpunk-related gaming content that was being released, and, as you can tell from the photos, my Cyberpunk game box that I dug out of storage not only held the original three game books (all black covers with white text/graphics) but also three other sourcebooks that I managed to grab at some point — Hardwired: The Sourcebook, Cyber Space from I.C.E., and GURPS Cyberpunk.

Three Resources

First up, the core game books of Cyberpunk. One of the books is labeled View From the Edge: The Cyberpunk Handbook. On the cover is a serious looking hacker-type individual with glasses and dress shirt staring at his cybernetic arm. Maybe he’s running a diagnostic because there are a couple cables coming out of it, but he’s very into whatever he’s staring at. Reading through the opening material, I had to laugh — the game takes place in the 2000s! Wow… I’m reading a history book! The game offers up nine roles for players: rockerboys, solos, netrunners, corporates, techies, cops, fixers, medias, and nomads. I’ll leave it to you to figure out what each role entails, but it’s not too difficult if you’ve read any cyberpunk or possibly seen movies like Johnny Mnemonic or Ghost in the Shell.

Cyberpunk RPG manuals

Continuing on… as someone who had one of the first Macs that ran MacWrite, I flipped a few pages and recognized a chart for rolling up personality and values and such (d10) and it was totally written and formatted with MacWrite! I recognize the font and the table design. So Weird — this was supposed to look futuristic but all it did was give me flashbacks to 1984/85 when I started writing papers and printing them out on the dot-matrix.

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One really interesting take for the book was the creation of a character’s Lifepath. Over a series of 5 full pages, you would make selections from small boxes that would add or decrease values of your characteristics. In some boxes you’d roll a d10 to determine if you mustered out of military service, for example. The Life Events section had you roll a d10 — roll a 5-6 and you had a “Romantic Involvement — Go To Table C” and then you’d jump to Table C and roll the d10 again. Roll a 6-7? “Love Affair with Problems. Go to C3.” Jump to C3 and roll a d10. Rolled a 7? “You’re professional rivals.” Over 5 pages, there were 18 different tables to navigate to flesh out your character. Some of them behaved like BASIC computer programming. Choose a Tragedy and then Goto C2. That kind of thing. The last table was called “Ending Lifepath” and you used it to roll up a random amount of starting funds based on your role. Rocker? Roll 2d10 x 100 for your monthly salary!

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Remember I mentioned the game takes place in the 2000s? Well, specifically on Page 19 you find out that the year is 2013. Seriously! The section is titled “Putting the Cyber into the Punk: Cybernetics in 2013” and opens with this gem:

Forget everything you ever thought about cyborgs. Everything. This is the 2000’s [sic]. Today’s cyborg is stylish. His cybernetics are designed for a streamlined, high-mover lifestyle.

HA! Love it! The article goes on to explain that in 2013, there’s a horrible condition known as cyberpsychosis. Sounds familiar. Well, every character has an Empathy Stat (EMP). When it gets low enough, you’re more machine than human and are overcome with cyberpsychosis. Here’s a great snippet:

At this point there is no turning back — the character is taken over by the Referee, who plays it as a non-player character with all the worst attributes of a murderous, mechanized psychopath, called a cyberpsycho.

Fear the cyberpsycho!

The book continues with details on technology, software, weapons, and much more that characters can purchase, install, implant, etc. One article talks about what characters can do when they run out of money but need more stuff. Options include, and I quote, Join the (Covert) Military, Take Up a Life of Organized Crime, and Sell Out to a Corporation, each with descriptive details for referee and player to use in a game.

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Later in the book, you find the good stuff. Netrunner, The Cybernetic Interface System for Cyberpunk. This is a game version of Gibson’s cyberspace, and instead of console jockeys, these guys are called netrunners. (Once again, all the charts and net maps and such are easily recognizable as MacPaint graphics!)

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Keep in mind this is pre-WWW stuff, and the explanations for how the Net works is fun and hilarious stuff. Companies with names like Microtech, Euro Business Machines Corporation (EBM), and InterNet City Phone System all came with small diagrams for the referee that show how their “networks” are laid out with various memory, alarm systems, processors and such. Netrunner players would have to navigate these maps to get to the good stuff. Awesome!

And the software descriptions? Take these as examples:

The Hammer. Class: Data Wall Breaker. Appearance: Dungeon Interface, A huge silver hammer, ‘Tronnic Interface, a glowing red hammer, Mega City Interface, a 20lb sledgehammer.

Brainwipe. Class: Black Program. Appearance: Mega City Interface, A faceless, leering doctor in bloody whites, who attacks the Netrunner with a hagged scalpel, stabbing it into his forehead.

William Gibson’s black ICE didn’t have anything on this stuff! Dozens of additional software items are provided, each with a different use for the Netrunner. Net Combat rules are described towards the end of the book, and the section provides a fictional story of one Netrunner:

You begin your run in your one room flat in the Minneapolis/St. Paul “combat zone.” Your interface is the basic ‘Tronnic, and you’re packing five programs: a Jackhammer, a Wizard’s Book, a Copycracker III and two Demons. One Demon is Succubus with Killer and Worm subroutines. The other is an Imp with Invisibility and Speedtrap.

I wish I could reprint the entire two page story. It’s a pageturner! The rest of the book contains some reference material (including drug use — yay, cyberpunk) and the character sheet. All this crammed into a 48 page sourcebook! But wait… let’s take a look now at Welcome to Night City: A Sourcebook for 2013, the second book included in the RPG box.

Character Sheet

This sourcebook provides referees with a map and description of Night City. Following a timeline (Second Corporate War, 2007!) legal, weapons, and transportation details of the period, and interestingly enough… Screamsheets. Apparently 2013 is hot for FAX technology for news transmittal. Radio is still around apparently, with over 200,000 stations existing just in the Western world. The map of Night City (with the W. Gibson Memorial Freeway — see image below) is a MacPaint masterpiece, complete with numbered callouts for hotspots like Medicross (47), an illicit body bank, The Afterlife (56), a bar located in an old mortuary, and the Jesse James Non-Kosher Deli (31), a weaponized Fight Club of sorts where brawlers go to fight (think Molly Millions).

Night City

Next comes “Never Fade Away,” a Cyberpunk adventure. Here’s the spill:

Never Fade Away is the story of twenty four hours in the life of Johnny Silverhand, a famous Rockerboy suddently catapulted into a deadly cat and mouse game with a sinister Corporate foe.

Players are hired by Johnny to find his hacker girlfriend, Alt. The adventure is followed by a number of corporation summaries (with amazingly pixeled logos) and fake newspaper clippings that provide cyberpunk flavoring to a campaign. Rounding out the books are some random d00 roll generation tables for coming up with encounters in Night City. Roll a 15-20? “Boostergang: Four low-level street punks in the colors of the Metal Warriors. They are armed with scratchers and wearing armor jackets. If your party is larger than theirs, they will avoid you. If smaller or equal size, they will try to rough you up right on the street.” Fun times. In addition to evening and daytime encounters, some pre-created NPCs are provided (minus stats that you must provide).

The third (and final book) included in the box is Friday Night Firefight a 24-page resource for resolving combat. Called the Interlock Man to Man & Weapons Combat System, it appears to be something that possibly exists in other R. Talsorian games, but I’m unable to verify that. It covers turn-based combat, with lots of discussions on special attacks, types of fire, and damage and wounds. Amazingly, much of what I’m seeing for combat resolution exists as two full-page collections of tables (see photo). Shotgun hit? Roll a d10 to determine 1st Hit and 2nd Hit locations. 4? 1st hit to Torso, 2nd hit to Head. The tables are quite varied — titles exist such as Wound Table, Grenade Throw, Melee Damage, Consciousness Save, and more.

These three books comprise the RPG game (well, that and two dice — a red d10 and a green d6). But they were by no means the only resources I had. As I stated earlier, I also grabbed copies of three different cyberpunk sourcebooks from three different publishers.

Hard Wired

I know I read Walter Jon Williams’ Hardwired sometime in the early 90s, but I have zero memory of the novel. Williams wrote this sourcebook himself for the Cyberpunk RPG, and a quick run through the book refreshed my memory that the date is slightly different for Williams’ world (2151) and the history is completely different as well. Instead of netrunners, you have the crystaljock who accesses the ‘face that makes up five unique areas for the hacker — Home, Local Environment, Bulletin Board, Workspace, and Paths. There’s even a somewhat quick tutorial on writing code for EBASIC, or Evolved BASIC. Flashbacks of DOS are now running through my mind. Five scenarios (actually 5.5) round out the sourcebook with some interesting sounding missions with names like 92 in the Shade, To Skin a Cat, and The Bushwacked Piano.

The Cyber Space resource book from I.C.E. definitely takes the medal in terms of pure support content for the referee. Over 200 pages of charts, diagrams, combat, world info, NPCs, maps, tech, equipment, medical info, vehicles, and cyberspace rules followed by an adventure titled “Hot on the Heels of Love.” Meant to be a standalone book with rules to run a generic cyberpunk game, this would have been an ideal source of material for any referee running a real cyberpunk campaign.

Finally, rounding out the extras is Steve Jackson Games’ GURPS Cyberpunk: High-Tech Low-Life Roleplaying Sourcebook. Meant to operate within the GURPS rule domain, it provided everything a referee would need for creating characters (using GURPS terminology), waging war in cyberspace, dealing with combat and, of course, netrunning. An entire chapter was devoted to just world building, with plenty of suggestions and discussions on creating the gritty reality that cyberpunk brings to mind. It has an amazing Bibliography for any cyberpunk fan (of course, it’s dated and missing a lot that’s appeared since 1990) but fans will appreciate the summary at the beginning of the book (page 4) that shares the infamous details of the Secret Service raid of SJG that included equipment seizure and lots of damage. The Secret Service considered this manual a “handbook for computer crime.” The one-page essay from Steve Jackson explaining the entire story is still entertaining even 23 years later.

As I understand it, R. Talsorian updated the game to Cyberpunk 2020. I don’t have a copy, so I’ll have to leave it up to a future GeekDad writer to reflect back on 2020 and decide whether the updated game got any of the future correct. I give R. Talsorian complete credit for taking a new genre that had very little in terms of reference material and extrapolating its own version of hacking and cybernetics and the future. In 1988, 2013 certainly seemed to be a long long way away… but as we approach 2014, I hate to say that I’m quite happy that cyberpunk never quite showed up on our doorstop. I love the genre, but I’m happy for it to remain between the pages of books rather than on the street. Between the three basic books and the extra three resource materials, I had access to a flood of cyberpunk material that, unfortunately, was never really able to be used in a real gaming campaign.

But that’s okay.

Thinking back to the late 80s, I realize now that a lot of my game collecting was done AFTER I knew my friends weren’t interested in a certain theme (like cyberpunk) — I simply purchased these items for the sheer joy or reading the content. And now I get to read through them again. The cyberpunk genre had a great run (and some might argue that it’s still relevant and popular), and I’m flipping through these game books and grinning big as a flood of memories come back to me.

Graphic Novel

And one more thing for you Neuromancer fans. In 1989, Epic Comics released Neuromancer: The Graphic Novel (above photo, center). It had a great introduction written by Gibson, and the artwork was done by Bruce Jensen (with script provided by Tom De Haven). While it didn’t always match up to the images that were in my head with regards to certain characters, it was nice to finally have some sort of visual interpretation of Gibson’s world, especially cyberspace. Unfortunately Volume I ended just after Molly’s run on SenseNet to hijack the Dixie Flatline and Case finds himself walking by a row of payphones that ring sequentially as he walks by after dodging a call from Wintermute. Even more unfortunate, there would never be a Volume II.

Sort of.

Volume II

Volume II was actually started but abandoned, and any of you Neuromancer fans out there who thought that was the end of the graphic novel might be interested to know that twelve pages from Volume II were actually published in a cyberpunk compendium titled The Ultimate Cyberpunk, released in 2002 by ibooks, inc. (not in any way to be confused with Apple’s iBooks that came many years later). Tucked right in the middle of this set of short stories is the twelve pages in all their glory. It’s not much, but it does show the “kidnapping” of Riviera and the ride over to Freeside on the Marcus Garvey.

Rumors continue to abound about a movie adaptation, but I won’t believe it until I’m sitting in the theatre and the previews are done and the opening scene displays a sky the color of a television tuned to a dead channel. Until then… I re-read Neuromancer every year and the graphic novel every few years… don’t ask me why. The story just never gets old.

Okay, I’m done.

But not really… some more (different) stuff to share with you very shortly. Oh, did I ever dig up some more fun stuff I just have to share. Stay tuned.

James Floyd Kelly is a full-time writer. His latest three books are Digital Engineering with Minecraft, Tinkercad for Beginners and The Ultimate iPad. Learn more by visiting his website